Federal Emergency Management Agency
In the wake of the Katrina disaster nearly every American should be familiar with the acronym of the Federal Emergency Management Agency FEMA. The agency has taken blame some would say more than its fair share for the problem experienced by hurricane victims.
In hearings in front of Congress this week, the recently-resigned chief of FEMA, Michael Brown, made vigorous defense of the agency, and his own leadership. Also this week, Homeland Security Department acting Inspector General Richard L. Skinner released an agency review which noted shortcomings in FEMA's response to disasters before Katrina:
FEMA's systems do not support effective or efficient coordination of deployment operations because there is no sharing of information...Consequently, this created operational inefficiencies and hindered the delivery of essential disaster response and recovery services.
NOW talked with former and current FEMA employees who trace some of the problems in FEMA's performance to changes in its organizational structure over recent years. Some point specifically to the movement of FEMA under the Department of Homeland Security in March 2003 a move which lost FEMA its cabinet-level status. Some critics also contend that the move signaled an increasing focus, and allocation of money, on preparing for terrorist attacks rather than more frequent environmental disasters. Indeed, Eric Holdeman, Director of the King County, Washington Office of Emergency Management published an editorial in the THE WASHINGTON POST, in the days immediately after Katrina struck the Gulf Coast:
To be sure, America may well be hit by another major terrorist attack, and we must be prepared for such an event. But I can guarantee you that hurricanes like the one that ripped into Louisiana and Mississippi yesterday, along with tornadoes, earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, floods, windstorms, mudslides, power outages, fires and perhaps a pandemic flu will have to be dealt with on a weekly and daily basis throughout this country. They are coming for sure, sooner or later, even as we are, to an unconscionable degree, weakening our ability to respond to them.
Read more about the history of FEMA, and the current controversy over its performance below.
(NOW's Emergency Resource Map will help you get vital information from your state emergency responders.)
Emergency Management History
The earliest efforts to deal with disasters on a national level was the Congressional Act of 1803. The Act gave assistance to a New Hampshire town which had been devastated by fire. For over a century the federal government passed such relief legislation many times for individual crises, but did not have a permanent disaster-response mechanism.
During the New Deal years, federal response to crises, fiscal and natural, became the norm. The Reconstruction Finance Corporation began to make loans for repair and reconstruction of earthquakes, and later other disasters. In 1934, the Bureau of Public Roads was charged with repairing disaster-damaged roads. The Flood Control Act of 1944 authorized "various Corps of Engineers water development projects" to heighten the nation's flood readiness.
Although the federal government was now taking responsibility for aiding citizens in the aftermath of many disasters, federal response was still decentralized. The Federal Disaster Assistance Administration, part of Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) was created in the 1960s. The government added to its disaster-relief duties with the passage of the National Flood Insurance Act in 1968. This was followed by the 1974 Disaster Relief Act, which created the process of Presidential disaster declarations.
In response to a request from The National Governor's Association, President Carter signed an Executive Order which further consolidated federal disaster response. That 1979 order created the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), absorbing, among others, the Federal Insurance Administration, the National Fire Prevention and Control Administration, the National Weather Service Community Preparedness Program, the Federal Preparedness Agency of the General Services Administration and the Federal Disaster Assistance Administration activities from HUD. In addition FEMA took over civil defense responsibilities from the Defense Department's Defense Civil Preparedness Agency.
After September 11, FEMA's Office of National Preparedness was charged with training "first responders" across the country in dealing with terrorist events. In March 2003, FEMA joined 22 other federal agencies, programs and offices in becoming the Department of Homeland Security.
- Federal Emergency Management Agency
FEMA's Katrina-relief efforts are detailed on this site, which also provides an Online Individual Assistance Center.
The Web site also includes a list of frequently-asked questions about all manner of disaster preparedness and relief and many other resources.
Michael Brown, Former FEMA Director Testifies Before Congress
Complete transcript of the September 27, 2005 testimony.
An editorial by Eric Holdeman, director of the King County, Washington Office of Emergency Management published in THE WASHINGTON POST, August 30, 2005.
FEMA’s Response to the 2004 Florida Hurricanes: A Disaster for Taxpayers?
Proceeds of the
U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, hearings from May 18, 2005, on FEMA response to Florida hurricanes.
FEMA Faces Intense Scrutiny
ONLINE NEWSHOUR's coverage of FEMA's Katrina response.
"FEMA: A Legacy of Waste,"
An extensive series in the FLORIDA SUN-SENTINEL. "The Sun-Sentinel took a look at 20 recent disasters and found mismanagement and misallocation abound."
- "Cash and 'Cat 5' Chaos,"
This article, by Keith Naughton and Mark Hosenball for the September 26, 2005 edition NEWSWEEK reports on the rebuilding efforts and dollars in the disaster area.
Government Accountability Office: Reports and Testimonies Related to Disaster Preparedness, Response and Reconstruction
A compilation of accounts related to disaster response by the GAO. Reports include the following topics: Charities, Coast Guard & Seaports, Energy Supply, Environment & Natural Resources, Flood Control, Infrastructure, Insurance Military's Role, Including National Guard & Reserves, Preparedness, Public Health, Response, Recovery. Katrina-related reports include: Army Corps of Engineers: Lake Pontchartrain and Vicinity Hurricane Protection Project, September 28, 2005; National Flood Insurance Program: Oversight of Policy Issuance and Claims, April 14, 2005; Hurricane Katrina: Providing Oversight of the Nations's Preparedness, Response, and Recovery Activities, September 28, 2005.
GAO: Hurricane Katrina: Providing Oversight of the Nation's Preparedness, Response, and Recovery Activities
Testimony Before the Subcommittee on
Oversight and Investigations, Committee
on Energy and Commerce, House of
Representatives, September 28, 2005.
NPR: An American History of Disaster and Response
NPR's illustrated online history of American and disasters.